Gender Benders: Video Game Heroines Redefine the Male and Female Genders
Swords are dancing on the screen in front of your eyes. Your blades become an extension of your sinewy arms and your enemies begin to fall to the ground around you. The fighting stops, the smoke clears and your character can be seen standing victoriously surrounded by an enclosure of fallen warriors, her long red pony tail blowing freely in the wind. Heavenly Sword for the Playstation 3 is a brutal, M-rated action game that places gamers in the tabi sandals of Nariko, a deadly warrior who must battle through an army of enemy soldiers in order to save her own life. When playing this game, it does not matter that the lead character is female-- nor does it matter if the person playing the game is male or female-- Nariko's chained blades and extensive repertoire of combat skills give gamers the sense that they can handle any challenges the game throws at them.
While some may argue that the skimpy clothing video game heroines often sport is chauvenistic, there is no denying that portraying women as strong, fearless warriors helps to shatter the stereotype of women being seen as the weaker sex.
Older games that were more popular in the seventies and eighties typically bought into the dated notion of women being inferior to men. Even newer entries in Nintendo's Mario Brothers and Legend of Zelda franchises follow this unfortunate tradition with Mario always having to rescue Princess Peach and Link always fighting to save the Princess Zelda. Disturbingly, these are not the only instance of the tendancy of games to portay women as weak and incapable: "The covers of the 47 most popular video games available on Nintendo portray a total of 115 male and nine female characters-a ratio of nearly 13 to one. Twenty of the males strike a dominant pose; none of the females do. Three females (a third of the total) are submissive-being kidnapped, carried off, or cowering behind a man; none of the males are. Thirteen of the games have scenarios with women kidnapped or having to be rescued as part of the game. Another 11 are based on sports like car racing, where gender discrimination generally is not an issue. Some games include the rescue of men, but not one man is rescued by a woman" (Provenzo 31).
However, games like Bayonetta, Metroid, and Resident Evil all feature strong female leads that do not follow the "damel in distress mentality and even more games are allowing the player to completely customize their characters, even choosing to play as a male or female character throughout the whole game.
Torrie Dorrel, senior vice president of global sales and marketing for Sony Online Entertainment, asserts that "women are out there in significant numbers playing MMOs, action games, first-person shooters. . .What is lacking in the equation are women behing these games" (qtd. in West). Dorrell has a valid point: if female gamers want to have more of an influence over the games they play, then more women should enter into the field of game design.
In spite of the lack of women in the game design field, there are still a rare few that are starting to cause a stir in the industry with "the emergence of female-oriented game design" (Dickey 786). One of the first games made and marketed specifically for girls was Barbie Fashion Designer which, despite selling fairly well and making gamers and industry professionals more aware that females do play video games, the game was also labeled as sexist for portraying "stereotypical female interests" (Dickey 788).
Not only have the gender roles associated with women been altered, but also the gender roles traditionally associated with men as made evident by shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, which emphasized embrassing the new metrosexuality of the "modern man" in order to please one's girlfriend/wife. While I am not suggesting that video games are the sole factor in this shift, they are one of many factors that stemmed from the Women's Rights Movement and, more recently, the "girl power" movement of the nineties. The media's "new conceptions about women as strong and independent forced men to renegotiate their own identities" (Tragos 542), resulting in a more sensitive, gentle and-- to some-- more effeminate modern man.
The "cultural messages" that media portray "impact children" (Dickey 789)-- who are still learning what it means to be a male/female-- and video games are no exception. As a result, the gender roles that were previously associated with both men and women have shifted. Our society's focus on stereotypes and gender roles is quite complicated, however. For example, while society does not want the next generation of women running around in tube tops and mini-skirts and it condemns the gruesome violence that is often present in video games, society also frowns upon games that promote stereotypical female activities and values such as make-up and fashion design. Society must relinquish its obsession with stereotypes and the general fear that is associated with being in violation of ones gender, for example, will disappear. After all, there are still female designers in the fashion industry, but there are also now female soldiers, doctors and gamers. The women portrayed in video games and other media are only attempting to please both the traditionalists and more modern men and women of society with their characters' "strong and beautiful" (Tragos 541) duality.
Caplan, Scott, Mia Consalvo, Dmitri Williams and Nick Yee. "Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers." Journal of Communication December 2009: 700- 25. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 Januray, 2010.
Cheryan, Sapna, Paul G. Davies, Victoria C. Plaut and Claude M. Steele. "Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2009: 1045-60. EBSCOhost. Web. 22 January, 2010.
Dickey, Michele D. "Girl gamers: the controversy of girl games and the relevance of female-oriented game design for instructional design." British Journal of Educational Technology September 2006: 785-93. EBSOhost. Web. 22 January, 2010.
Eglesz, Dénes, István Fekete, Lajos Izsó and Orhidea Edith Kiss. "Computer games are fun? On professional games and players' motivations." Educational Media International June 2005: 117-24. EBSCOhost. Web. 13 January, 2010.
Nariko; fr. Opening Cinematic/Level, Heavenly Sword. Ninja Theory Ltd. Namco Bandai. 12 September, 2007.
Provenzo Jr., Eugene F. "What do Video Games Teach?" Education Digest December 1992: 56-9. EBSCOhost. Web. 22 January, 2010.
Tragos, Peter. "Monster Masculinity: Honey, I'll Be In The Garage Reasserting My Manhood." Journal of Popular Culture June 2009: 541-53. EBSCOhost.Web. 12 January, 2010.
West, Matt. "Wooing women gamers--and game creators." CNN. 28 February, 2008. <http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/ptech/02/28/women.gamers/index.html?iref=a llsearch.> Web. 18 January, 2010.
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